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NEXT ATHELETE: YAO MING

China's Yao Ming is go big, so young and so good, he could change basketball-and a whole lot more

BY CAL FUSSMAN


Who was this guy, anyway? You rub your eyes after 17 hours of flying across 13 time zones and pluck your suitcase off the baggage carousel. The expansive airport architecture suggests that you're well into the 21st century. You blink. This is not the China of your imagination. You're in Shanghai and you do know some things about the man you're going to meet. You know that Yao Ming is roughly 7-foot-6 and 20 years old, and that he is potentially the world's next athlete of impact. You know that on a visit to the United States two years ago, he played at Michael Jordan's camp and that even back then Michael had joked about phoning the Chicago Bulls to sign him. You know that within TK seconds during the Sydney Olympics he stuffed Vince Carter and swatted Gary Payton's shot into another time zone. That insiders are now speculating Yao could be one of the top picks in the coming NBA draft. And that he is already under contract with Nike. One of the game's great players, Bill Walton, observed Yao in Sydney and thought he had the potential to "alter the history of the NBA and change the way the game is played." Which makes you wonder if Yao could be even bigger than all that - a human bridge between cultures? You get in line to have your passport stamped and remind yourself not to get carried away. You remember how the Americans fouled Yao out in the first half and went on to romp over the Chinese by tk points in Sydney. Even if he is skilled, does he have the confidence and hunger to star in the NBA? And what if all the optimistic plans don't pan out? Last year, a 7-foot Chinese all-star named Wang Zhi Zhi was drafted by the Dallas Mavericks but not allowed to leave his Red Army team. Would Yao even be permitted by Chinese authorities to play in America? You pass through customs and see a woman holding a sign bearing your name. She directs you to a man who carries your suitcase toward a curb where a car is waiting to drive you to your hotel. The man carrying your suitcases speaks a little English and asks where you are from. "America," you say. "Chapel Hill, North Carolina." You flick your hand in the motion of a basketball shot to help him understand. "Home of Michael Jordan." The man nods. "Ahh, yes," he says. "Also Sam Perkins." Your eyebrows arch. He smiles and says: "We watch NBA here very often."

You hit the streets at dawn to find old men and women flowing through the ancient and delicate movements of tai chi. Then turn and see couples BALLROOM DANCING on the sidewalk to the recorded music of an American fifties orchestra. You blink up at skyscrapers and cranes that are making more skyscrapers . . . as commuters pass on bicycle. You spot a Starbucks and remember the photo of cooked scorpions in your guidebook. It's too early to make sense of things, but you get the feeling you're going to have to understand Shanghai to understand Yao. You meet Nike's director of marketing for China for breakfast. Terry Rhoads takes you behind your downtown hotel to a basketball playground like any in America except that it's like no other on earth. The walls are decorated with electro-shocked graffiti paintings of Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan and Jason Williams as if they were oriental comic book heroes. There are few public basketball courts in Shanghai, Rhoads tells you, and after school, the place will be packed with kids. It's not hard to understand why Nike built the playground. There are 26 million feet in Shanghai and two and a half billion in China. More sneakers are waiting to be sold here than anywhere else on earth. And who better to endorse them than a Chinese basketball star? You ask Rhoads about Yao Ming. "I first saw Yao in 1997," he says. "Nike had just signed a contract to sponsor the Shanghai Sharks of the Chinese Basketball Association and we had a little party to introduce ourselves. There were a few of us and in walked the team. Looked normal, guys 6-4. Then this one kid comes in, baby-faced, who's about 7-foot-3, kind of skinny and in some ways looking like Manute Bol. Our jaws dropped - and then, of course, the skepticism came in. Well, he's probably a stiff. Then he started hitting three pointers and we thought - Whoa! "Our guys in the United States didn't believe that there was a Chinese kid that tall. Once we convinced them they invited us to bring him to a Nike camp in Paris in the summer of 1997. Yao had always played against kids that were older than him and that probably hurt his confidence when he was growing up. This was the first time he was matching up against players his own age - and he stood out. Del Harris, then the Lakers coach, was at the camp and he fell in love with Yao. He was telling everybody, 'I gotta get a picture with that kid because one day he's gonna have a real impact in the NBA. "After Paris, the word was out. We had Yao and a teammate named Liu Wei come to America for two months to play on an AAU junior elite team. They went to our all-America camp in Indianapolis that had 200 of America's best players. There were about 40 centers at the camp. Coaches give the players a report card and recruiting services grade the players. Yao ranked second out of the centers. "The cherry on top was when Yao and Liu went to Santa Barbara to be camp counselors at Michael Jordan's flight camp. Every night, Michael would get together with the counselors for a five-on-five scrimmage. I remember Michael coming downcourt one game, sinking a three-pointer and teasing Yao. You know, 'Can YOU do that?' So Yao launches a three-pointer and hits - and Michael's saying, 'Wow! The big guy can shoot!' You ask Rhoads if he thinks Yao will be able to play in the NBA. "I'm sure there's a lot of NBA teams that would like to have a clear, concise answer to that," Rhoads says. "Yao hasn't been drafted so nobody knows for sure. A lot of people would be involved in the decision. The Shanghai Sharks club, people in the sports ministry in Shanghai, the basketball association of China. And, of course, Yao and his parents. We think so. We'll see what happens." You turn back to those electro-shocked caricatures of Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan and Jason Williams. They remind you of something Yao's American agent, Bill Duffy, had told you over the phone. This would not be like yet another foreign player coming into the NBA. If all turned out well, Duffy had said, there was no way to even fathom Yao's marketing potential. You get a feeling that Duffy's finger was on the right pulse. Perhaps because the trading cards that are the rage across elementary schools in America are no longer of baseball players, but of Nintendo Pokemon characters that originated in the Orient, characters styled just like the Jason Williams on the playground wall.

It's not easy to get time to see Yao. It's the first week of November, the season is approaching and the Chinese Professional Basketball Association is far more structured than the NBA. The players on the Shanghai Sharks live two to a dorm room, rise together at 7:30 a.m., eat rice soup for breakfast, practice in the morning, work with weights for 20 minutes, eat lunch, sleep for two hours, run through another practice, eat dinner and perhaps relax with a computer game before the 10 p.m. curfew. Last year, time was budgeted in the Sharks' daily routine for players to wash their own uniforms. This year, an equipment manager has been hired for the task. You'll have dinner with Yao on Saturday night, at one of his favorite restaurants: Tony Roma's, the rib joint. In the meantime, you seek out Yao's friends, his first coach, his parents and the Sharks' coach and general manager for some background. You'd think there was some profound story behind Yao's height. But that notion is quickly dispelled. China is larger than Europe, with numerous ethnic groups, customs and languages. People in the north tend to be larger than people from the south who Americans might stereotype behind the counter of a laundromat. Anyway, the story of Yao's size is rather matter-of-fact. His dad, 6-foot-9, played basketball and so did his mom, a 6-3 center for the Chinese national women's team. Yes, public bus fare had to be paid for Yao when he was four years old because he'd surpassed the height of the average eight-year-old. Yes, Yao was taller than one of his elementary school teachers. But outside of needing a custom bed and clothing as an adolescent, Yao's life has apparently been fairly normal. In fact, the story of Yao's past seems to be much the story of Yao's present: he has always been slowly growing into himself. His first coach remembers Yao not liking basketball much at the age of 9 and being able to run only four laps around the court before halting winded. "Don't be discouraged," he told Yao. "You do four times today, five times next week and six times the week after that. That is how to improve - with little steps." A friend remembers kids half Yao's size being able to out-rebound him early on because Yao's body and coordination had yet to align. He was skinny,oweak in the chest and friends jokingly called his arms "chopsticks" because they displayed about as much muscle. Even after coordination came, and Yao could dominate, he did not. The Chinese mindset is rooted in teamwork and discourages one player from standing out over others. To get an idea how ingrained this concept is, you must consider that when the Chinese Basketball Association was founded five years ago, individual statistics for scoring and rebounding were not even kept. Yao's parents were always waiting after games with counsel. They saw the game through positioning and watched as clinically as John Wooden might have. Yao, who loved to study Chinese history, especially an ancient leader noted for brilliant strategy named Sugloria, picked up things quickly. The trips to Paris and the United States widened his vision. Still, he was comparatively weak in the upper body and it's fairly hard to be discreet about it when you're 7-foot-6 and under a basket. In one game during his first season with the Shanghai Sharks, Yao was battered to the floor 16 times. The Sharks finished sixth of eight teams. Slowly, Yao began to hold his ground and the Sharks ascended to fourth in the standings, then second - always finishing behind the perennial champion, the Red Army team sparked by the 7-footer the Dallas Mavericks desired: Wang Zhi Zhi. Yao's small steps, though, were measuring leaps over time. Some Nike reps who'd seen Yao at Paris couldn't believe how much he'd improved when they saw him three years later in Sydney. Although the Chinese team did not win a medal, the kids of Shanghai saw Yao stuff Vince Carter and he returned home from the Olympics a hero. All sensed it was just the beginning. The coach of the Sharks didn't see Yao starting to peak for another five years. Nearly everyone you talk to in Shanghai, including Yao's parents, went to see Yao test himself against the world's best. Even the mayor of Shanghai suggested he go to the NBA at a recent sports banquet. But you wonder what Shark's management thought of the idea. Let's face it, would Lakers execs like to see Kobe Bryant play in Italy? So you head over to the elegant high-rise that houses the television station, OTV, which owns the team. Inside, you pass a massive photo of Yao getting a pat on the rump from Michael Jordan and step into the office of general manager Li Yao Min. You want to know a little about him before you ask about Yao and the NBA. As you listen, you can't help but smack your forehead in amazement. When the league was created five years ago, there was no market of professional sports executives to hire from. OTV asked Li, a former newsman and director with no basketball background, to run the Sharks. Li did very little sleeping that first year. Get this: For one home game, the Sharks sold only nine tickets. Li had to pay to get students in seats. Soon, though the team was improving, a massive wide-open sharkmouth was assembled for the players to burst through at introductions and interest soared. Last year, for the first time, the Sharks sold out their 4,200-seat arena. The Sharks lost in the playoff final to Wang Zhi Zhi and the Red Army team. But they were clearly coming, and as Li tells you of plans to build a new 12,000-seat arena, you wonder even more how he feels about the possibility of his star attraction leaving to play in America. "We hope that Yao Ming will go to the NBA," Li says simply enough through an intepreter. "It will be good for him to play against the best players in the world. And it will help basketball in Shanghai." Though translating detailed conversation can be kind of tricky - you wonder about nuance when Li speaks for 45 seconds and you get a 10-second translation - it's obvious the GM is thinking long-term. From the team's perspective, Li says, it would not be worthwhile simply to send Yao to the NBA in exchange for only money. The team would like to work together with the NBA club that drafted Yao. For example, OTV would like to televise Yao's NBA games in China. And the Sharks would like American coaches to bring their training methods to the youth of Shanghai. Li speaks of the possibility as a venture in cooperation. While nobody has said anything to you on the subject, you could guess at the difference between the NBA drafting Wang Zhi Zhi from the Red Army team and selecting Yao Ming from the Shanghai Sharks. If the Red Army team that has won the championship every year loses its star and no longer wins titles, think about it: Will there be subsequent promotions for the general in charge? Yao Ming, on the other hand, was born in a city that now desires to be a player on the world stage. Shanghai and its port has historically been open to foreign influence and ideas. At the outset of World War II, it was a haven for European refugees fleeing the Nazis. A passport was not even required to enter the city. Now it is vibrant, flexing its economic muscle and attracting young people from around the world to work. A mere glance at the mushrooming skyline makes you think the city seems bent on turning New York into the Shanghai of The West. You even get the sense that Yao is a metaphor for his city, the human skyscraper it wants to show the world.

You'd imagined it would be strange to walk into a Tony Roma's rib joint in Shanghai with a man who's 7-foot-6 - but it's perfectly natural. Yao is so at home he can order without even looking at the menu and Tony Roma's is like . . . well, like Tony Roma's anywhere. "What amazed you most when you came to play basketball in the United States?" you ask after you've been seated. Yao understands English, certainly anything that would be said on the basketball court, and he can speak some, but now he prefers a translator. "It was very strange at first to see such passion and emotion in the game," he says. "When I went to America, I didn't like to dunk very much. It's not the Chinese way." You nod, remembering the Oriental adage: The nail that sticks out gets hammered down. "In America, I'd get the ball near the basket, shoot a layup and the coach would be saying, 'Dunk the ball!' But I was used to laying it in. Finally, the coach said, 'If you get the ball in close and don't dunk it, all of your teammates are going to have to run laps.' But I couldn't help it. I was very accustomed to laying the ball in the basket. All of my teammates were running laps, begging me to dunk. Finally, after about a week and many laps, I began to dunk it every time." You wonder what he felt like draining a three against Michael Jordan and stuffing Vince Carter. You ask: "What's been your most memorable moment on the court?" "When our national team won the Asian junior championship in 98. We beat Qatar and I had 17 blocks." You're eyebrows lift, then you remember he's seeing the game in terms of team instead of a Sportscenter highlight. "Would you rather have 30 blocks in a game," you ask, "or score 30 points?" "I'd take the 30 blocks. If you have 30 blocks it will destroy your opponents' morale. It will take away their heart." "Do you have a favorite player to watch in the NBA?" "Sabonis. I like the way he uses his mind, the way he passes. He can play inside and outside. He's got a three-point shot and I remember him dunking over David Robinson. He's very smart. I like the way his mind allows him to get the best of each situation." The waitress places down sirloin and rib combos all around and you wonder what Yao thought of the food in the U.S. "I like big steaks. And I like going to Starbucks. The food in Chinese restaurants there is different than here. It was strange seeing a fortune cookie for the first time. We don't have them here. Must be an American invention." "Do you like scorpion? I hear it's crunchy." "We don't eat scorpion much here. It's a specialty from another part of China. A lot of people here eat snake, though. Turtle soup is pretty good, too." You dig into your ribs, and ask what Yao learned in the game against the American team in the Olympics, in which China broke out to an early lead before Yao and Wang Zhi Zhi got into foul trouble and the rout commenced. "Five minutes of playing well, or ten minutes, do not mean very much. It's how well you play the entire game. One of America basketball's biggest strengths is understanding that. In the NBA, there are a lot of one-point and two-point games. There is intense competition to the final second. I'm really looking forward to that." "It was only a few years ago when you were getting pushed to the floor often in the Chinese league," you say. "Do you think you're ready to hold off Shaq?" Yao smiles. "No," he says. "Not now." "How much time will you need to develop the strength?" "Three or four years. I just turned 20. I believe it might be better to go to the NBA at age 22 because physically I'll be much more mature then and have more experience, too." Wherever the conversation flows with Yao you get the feeling of balance, thoughtfulness and potential. No, he was not going to cross an ocean and dominate Shaq. If he did make it to the NBA, he was going to get thrown around at first, just like when he entered Chinese professional ball. But this was a man who carefully considered situations and always looked for a way to improve, step by step. He sits before you now, a 20-year-old kid munching on a big steak, talking about the strategies of an ancient Chinese leader and the fun of water skiing on the Willamette River in Portland. The question with Yao is, what might he become when all his little steps get added up in five years or ten?

You wish you could stay for the Sharks opener to see him play, but it's impossible. You do get an e-mail shortly afterward, though. Seems Yao opened the game with a three-point bomb, slammed in five ferocious dunks, scored 22 points, grabbed 21 rebounds, swatted five blocks and passed out five assists as the Sharks beat the five-time champion Red Army team, 104-99. The sellout crowd in Shanghai was smoking and the thoughtful giant who once didn't like to dunk was jumping up and down after making key plays down the stretch with the emotion of an American. You're sorry you missed it. But that's okay. You get the feeling you'll be seeing Yao soon enough.


YAO'S HUGE UPSIDE

By Bill Walton

As we approach the halfway point of the Age of Shaq, the search for a successor has extended to the least likely of places: China. Why? If you watched the Olympics, you know. I was there, and after watching Yao Ming compete against the best players in the world, I left Sydney dizzy with the possibilities. Simply put, the 20-year-old Yao has a chance to alter the way the game of basketball is played. I've seen hundreds of talented prospects look promising in tryouts, only to disappoint once they got on the court against polished performers. I'm sure that won't be the case with the 7'6" Yao. This guy has skills, competitiveness and basketball intelligence that far exceed his limited background. As I watched his crisp and imaginative passes, felt the energy surge when he'd whip an outlet to launch a fast break and noted his decisionmaking and great court demeanor, I knew I was peering into the future. The first thing that struck me about Yao in Sydney was the way he combines grace with size. He carried a beautifully sculpted physique (he weighs 265 pounds) despite only recently committing to formal weight training and conditioning programs. His base is solid-size 18 feet under a powerfully muscled lower body-yet he's amazingly nimble. The mechanics of his jump and hook shots, while not classic, are most certainly sound. And consistent. His jumper is dangerous out to 20 feet, and he can hook you to death with either hand. The two best young players I've ever seen were Lew Alcindor (before he was Kareem) and Arvydas Sabonis. At this stage, Yao is not the equal of either. But his upside is so unlimited that when he does enter the NBA draft, I can't conceive of any other player being chosen before him. It usually takes a foreign player at least two years to adjust to American culture and perform at his best. The language barrier is always the initial hurdle, though that should be a lesser concern for Yao. Three years ago he spoke no English. Since then, he has been to the U.S. as a guest of Nike and been a participant in Michael Jordan's summer youth basketball camp, and he's learned enough English to communicate adequately with coaches and teammates. Yao will have more of a challenge adjusting to the NBA lifestyle: rich restaurant food instead of the Chinese staples of fish and rice, a different hotel room every other night, the constant trips in and out of airports. His life will be quite different from the one he leads now. Yao was recruited to play for the Sharks' junior team seven years ago, but it's an enormous stretch to compare the Chinese developmental process to ours. The facilities in China do not measure up to our standards either. Nor does the equipment. It's ironic that much of the world's sporting equipment is now produced in China, but that equipment is available to its own athletes on only a limited basis. The poor quality of coaching in China and the multiple levels of bureaucracy are also hurdles for Yao. Basketball innovation and creativity are absent in China, where longer, harder and faster practices are thought to be the true path to success. And while the Chinese are aware of the need to upgrade the level of coaching, the extreme nationalism in China and noncompetitive salaries prevent the much needed influx of U.S. coaches. There's only one American now coaching in China. Former NBA player Mike McGee coaches a team in the league Yao plays in, and his impact is severely limited since he isn't associated with the all-important national team. I think the quality of international competition, especially in China, holds back Yao as well. The international game is slow-paced and almost contact-free, and you face a top opponent no more than a few times a year. The speed, intensity and physical nature of every possession in the NBA makes Chinese basketball look like it's in slow motion. Despite these hurdles, the people who run basket ball in this country continue to dream of a truly international NBA. Why not? If you can find a Larry Bird in French Lick, Ind., a Kevin McHale in Hibbing, Minn., or a John Stockton in Spokane, Wash., why can't you find a future star in Russia, Brazil or China? A year ago, the Mavericks used a second-round pick to draft 7'1" Wang Zhi-Zhi, the first Chinese national selected by an NBA team. Wang is a good player, more along the lines of a Toni Kukoc, and the Mavericks are still working to get him under contract. But it's Yao who has the NBA truly excited. Granted, I can't predict Yao's continued good health. Or how hard and long he'll work to develop his game. Or how he'll stand up to playing 100 NBA games a year. Or whether he'll be able to overcome his relatively short arms, suspect explosiveness and less-than-great lateral mobility. Yes, Yao is unquestionably a work-in-progress. But if I were an NBA coach, I'd like him to be my work-in-progress. He's 7'6" and incredibly graceful and coordinated. Over the past 15 years, the NBA has put a higher premium on physical talent than on skill. The international game favors the opposite, skill without the physical prowess. Yao Ming has the chance to be the bridge that spans both worlds.


SIZE DOES MATTER

The preposterously tall prospect has always intrigued the NBA, if only for the chance that he will be a once-in-a-generation player who truly changes the game. Sure, such pros pects often get cut down to size, but you can dream, right? That's where China's 7'6" Yao Ming stands today. "The picture is really incomplete," says one Western Conference assistant GM, "but if you want to dream, you can have big dreams about this kid." The consensus scouting report on Yao: aggressive shotblocker, jump-shooting range out to 20 feet, good hands, good agility, very good passing skills and touch around the basket. Slowly developing a repertoire of post moves. Runs the floor well for his size. A certain first-rounder, if not the top pick in the draft. The hands and feet are key because, despite all that size, it's the talent in the extremities that separates the gifted from the merely gargantuan. "He's a terrific basketball player with very good footwork, excellent hands and a nice touch," says one NBA assistant coach, who first worked with Yao three years ago and has seen him play an estimated 50 times. (League rules prohibit management from commenting on undrafted players.) "One of the keys to evaluating a big guy is the progress he makes, and Yao's made big strides in the past two years. He's for real. With his combination of size and skills, he's as close to a 7'6" sure thing as there is." Yao's agent, Bill Duffy, believes his client should be "the No.1 pick without lifting a finger" based on his Sydney Olympics performance, in which he blocked a pair of shots against the Dream Team. Several NBA scouts support Duffy's contention. Because Yao has no military commitment blocking his exit from China, his draft position is considerably enhanced. One scout warns, though, that being picked first doesn't guarantee success, and most acknowledge that Yao is nowhere near a finished product. The primary concern is his lack of upper body strength. "The risk of another Shawn Bradley is there," the scout says. But as the draft approaches, and the stories multiply about Yao's feats-he scored 38 points in 20 minutes in a recent game-expect any concerns to give way to visions of a Ming dynasty. Of a nimble giant rejecting Shaq's jump hooks, lofting impossible-to-block high-post jumpers and whipping perfectly timed outlet passes over the defense. You can just hear the GMs mumbling in their sleep: Yao-za. -Ric Bucher